Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat, “Symphony of a Thousand”, arr. Robert J. Keeshan for viola, double bass, and chamber choir [89:41]
A homeless man (viola); Bob Barker (double-bass)
Warsaw Prisoners’ Choir
rec. live, 31 May, 2008, Bob Barker Studio, CBS Television City, Los Angeles, California, USA
NAXOS 8.509198-9 [28:12 + 61:29]  

I feel that I have been sent this disc by mistake. In response to a query from one of MusicWeb International’s editors, I remarked that I had never been able to understand or indeed listen for more than five minutes to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and would rather review something simpler for April, like Johann Strauss waltzes, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, or the symphonies of K.A. Hartmann. Then what should arrive in my mailbox but this?

Naxos are famous for their adventurous choices in repertoire but this is a rather intrepid step even for them. The present disc gives us the mighty Mahler symphony in an arrangement for double-bass, viola, and 32 choristers. Why 32? According to the liner-notes by producer David Hurwitz, it is because 31.6 is the square root of a thousand.

The story behind the arrangement is bizarre, if not particularly fascinating. Bob Barker, host of the legendary game show “The Price Is Right,” has also been a lifelong double bass enthusiast; he would often improvise riffs on popular tunes to entertain audiences during the commercial breaks of his show. Barker favorites included “Surfer Girl,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and nearly the entire Joan Baez songbook. But, behind the scenes, he nursed an enthusiasm for sterner stuff, and in the late 1970s commissioned this arrangement of the Mahler symphony from a good friend and fellow closeted musician, Robert J. Keeshan - better known as Captain Kangaroo.

Keeshan, chair of the second violas for the Palm Springs Hotel Orchestra, undertook to make the music something the friends could play together. Ultimately, he added a choir to the mix, simply because of the important part singing plays in this music, although he did have the felicitous idea of translating the lyrics to English, removing all religious references (owing to Barker’s Wahhabism), simplifying the vocabulary, and ensuring that everything rhymed quite nicely.

This arrangement, then, at last brings the Symphony of a Thousand down to my level. To substitute for church bells, the violist kicks a soprano in the shins, and at one point in Part I, beginning in what previously was the “Accende lumen sensibus,” Keeshan seems to have run out of ideas and has the viola and bass just play major scales in F-sharp for seven minutes.

Meanwhile, the actual notes of the choir parts have not been altered in any way, which is a pity not just because the syllables are quite different but because the Warsaw Prisoners’ Choir is comprised entirely of male bass and baritone singers, with the exception of two sopranos who missed their flight back to Poland (more on this later). One wonders if it would have been too much trouble to bring in the Beach Boys to handle the women’s parts.

The choir is terrific, though, especially in the lower registers, and I should note that the homeless violist, found panhandling on the street outside the studio, does a passable job sawing away and doubling in the role of conductor. Barker handles the bass part quite well for his age, occasional memory lapses and whimsical insertions of popular tunes like “Oops, I Did it Again” notwithstanding. Even at the ripe old age of 87, it is clear that Bob Barker is still quite a player.

I guess my biggest problem is with Mahler himself. This symphony definitely could have been brought down to about ten minutes, couldn’t it? And especially in this arrangement: the first choral lines of Part I are “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food,” and honestly, I feel that the rest of the verses are redundant. Add a couple of church-bell shin-kicks, maybe a Red Army-type march for the Warsaw voices, and a cadenza for the viola, and you’ve got a five-minute Part I. And, since Keeshan already lifted the text of “Bad Boys” (“What you gonna do / when Satan comes for you?”) for Part II, I see no sense in retaining any of the original text. I do like the relentless use of the sound of the viola to drive Faust mad. It seems appropriate.

Naxos’ packaging is fine as usual, with an excellent liner note essay which never really attempts to justify the project at hand. The sound quality is first-rate. There is no biographical information for the “homeless violist,” but I suppose I am unsurprised, given that this type of plight has befallen many of my violist friends. I presume that he is still living under an overpass in Los Angeles. At the very least, he can use the booklet for food.

A friend of mine who works for Naxos-who should probably remain anonymous, but let’s call her “Janet”-tells me that the recording sessions for this album were quite difficult. Apparently the Warsaw Prisoners’ Choir was only brought in because it happened to be in town for a taping of “Oprah,” and that all but two members of the Warsaw Women’s Penitentiary Voices packed their bags and flew home on the night before after numerous complaints about Barker’s backstage behavior. Even at the ripe old age of 87, it is clear that Bob Barker is still quite a player.

The live recording, made on the actual set of “The Price is Right,” were constantly interrupted by rather tepid studio audience applause, which producer Hurwitz erased afterwards. Unfortunately, he seems also to have eliminated the entire instrumental introduction to Part II, during which, I am told, the violist went to Wendy’s to get everyone lunch.

Indeed, the whole live atmosphere is rather careless. During the final children’s chorus, somebody’s music stand appears to have tipped over, leaving as evidence a loud metallic clatter, the sound of pages flying across the soundstage, and an Oxbridge-accented voice hissing, “Oh, bugger!” My own view of this CD, though rather more bemused, can be summarized in roughly the same words.

Brian Reinhart